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Salicylic acid

Category: Natural chemicals



Introduction and description


Salicylic acid, from the Latin salix, willow tree - from the bark of which the substance used to be obtained - is a monohydroxybenzoic acid, a type of phenolic acid and a beta hydroxy acid. It has the formula C7H6O3. The salts and esters of salicylic acid are known as salicylates.

It is a colourless crystalline organic acid, in other words a natural chemical which is found in many more plants than the willow.  We have provided an observation using Dr Duke’s analysis that shows the plants in which it can be found.  One of the highest concentrations is actually in liquorice, which is both edible and a sort of ‘super medicine’ having antiviral, and antibacterial properties amongst many others.

Salicylic acid is an important active metabolite of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), which acts in part as a prodrug to salicylic acid.  It is one of the very few natural chemicals on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system.

Medicinal uses

Pain relief/analgesia


Salicylic acid is probably best known for its ability to ease aches and pains and reduce fevers.

These medicinal properties, particularly fever relief, have been known since ancient times, and it is used as an anti-inflammatory. 

If we look at Dr Duke’s analysis this can be seen

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Analgesic; PJB1(2):285 MAD;
  • Antiinflammatory; PHZ46:156;
  • Antineuralgic; MAD;
  • COX-2-Inhibitor; COX2000;- a COX-2 selective inhibitor directly targets cyclooxygenase-2, COX-2, an enzyme responsible for inflammation and pain. Targeting selectivity for COX-2 theoretically reduces the risk of peptic ulceration
    Cyclooxygenase-Inhibitor; PCF:49; - Pharmacological inhibition of COX can provide relief from the symptoms of inflammation and pain.
  • Thermogenic; 130 ppm; SCI237:1601; brings out a fever
  • Antipyretic [fever reducing]

Salicylic acid also appears to help with a number of illnesses and diseases whose symptoms are inflammation and pain.  In this case the chemical is not acting to treat the cause, but it does provide relief from the symptoms whilst the cause is addressed.  If we look at Dr Duke’s analysis this can be seen:

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Antiarthritic; MAD;
  • Antirheumatic; PJB1(2):285;
  • Antipodagric; - Gout (also known as podagra when it involves the joint at the base of the big toe) is usually characterized by recurrent attacks of inflammatory arthritis
  • Antitympanitic; M11; - Tympanitis or Otitis media is a group of inflammatory diseases of the middle ear

These activities are achieved via ingestion, and the ingestion is only via food/plants.  The research seems to indicate that taken as part of food, any irritant effects on the stomach are alleviated or become neutralised.  Hence, for example, one eats liquorice and by eating liquorice one is getting a small dose of salicylic acid to help with the rheumatism or pain and inflammation.  As liquorice also contains antivirals, it may help with the cause of the rheumatism as well.

In order to emphasise this point – that salicylic acid must only ever be ingested by using the food in which it is found, Dr Duke’s analysis of what happens if you don’t can serve as a reminder:

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

Ulcerogenic; - it causes stomach ulcers

Skin problems


Salicylic acid is a key ingredient in many skin-care products for the treatment of seborrhoeic dermatitis, acne, psoriasis, calluses, corns, keratosis pilaris, acanthosis nigricans, ichthyosis, and warts.

According to Wikipedia “The standard treatment for calluses is a 6% aspirin suspension in petroleum jelly, applied on the callus for one hour and then removed with washing.”  Salicylic acid works as a keratolytic, comedolytic, and bacteriostatic agent, causing the cells of the epidermis to shed more readily, opening clogged pores and neutralizing bacteria within, preventing pores from clogging up again by constricting pore diameter, and allowing room for new cell growth. Because of its effect on skin cells, salicylic acid is used in several shampoos to treat dandruff.

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Antidandruff; ALH;
  • Antidermatotic;
  • Antieczemic;
  • Antiichthyosic; M29; - Ichthyosis is a heterogeneous family of at least 28, generalized, mostly genetic skin disorders.  All types of ichthyosis have dry, thickened, scaly or flaky skin.
  • Antipsoriac;
  • Keratolytic; JBH; - Keratolytic therapy thins the skin on and around a lesion or area of thickened skin. It causes the outer layer of the skin to loosen and shed
  • Antibacterial; MAR;
  • Antiseptic; ALH;
  • Antiseborrheic; - skin disorder
  • Dermatitigenic; JBH;
  • Comedolytic; M29; - A comedo is a clogged hair follicle (pore) in the skin.  Keratin (skin debris) combines with oil to block the follicle.  A comedo can be open (blackhead) or closed by skin (whitehead), and occur with or without acne

As an extension to this activity Salicylic acid also has pesticide/insecticide activity.  Used externally it may thus be helpful against parasitic infestations of the skin – the sort that can cause acne or even scabies.

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Insectifuge; EB48:111;
  • Pesticide;


 Salicylic acid has anti-fungal activity when applied externally.  According to Dr Duke’s analysis:

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Antioncychomycotic; M29; - Onychomycosis is a fungal infection of the nail.
  • Tineacide; M29; - Tinea, often called ringworm, is a fungal infection of the skin
  • Fungicide; MIC 1,000 ug/ml; FFJ11:257;

Cancer preventative


 There is evidence – see the observations - that salicylic acid has cancer preventative capabilities, more especially against colorectal cancer. 

The reason why is not known, but the general trend of the research is based on those people who have a disrupted bioflora – called dysbiosis – as a result of antibiotics, for example, or other pharmaceuticals. 

In effect the constant use of pharmaceuticals over time disrupts the chemical balance in the gut allowing pathogens unknown [or perhaps the pharmaceutical itself is the pathogen] to attack the walls of the intestine and create polyps, which then become malignant.  Polyps usually form around quite large pathogens as a protective measure.

If we look at the eHealthme site and the classes of pharmaceuticals implicated in colorectal cancer, we find the following:

  • Proton pump inhibitors
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Anticoagulants/blood thinners
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Anti-folic acid drugs
  • Ace inhibitors
  • Statins
  • Diuretics
  • Osteoporosis treatments
  • Benzodiazepines and similar

 The mechanism by which salicylic acid works is unknown, but it may be as simple as restoring the acid alkaline balance, creating the right conditions for the flora to regenerate.

There is another option.  Breakdown of CR - colonization-resistance -  in the gut can increase susceptibility to infections. The infections then trigger inflammatory host responses and pathogen-mediated disease.  In turn however, inflammatory immune responses in the gut which are pathogen-induced can alter the gut luminal milieu in a way that favours dysbiosis, so we have here a vicious circle.  It may simply be that salicylic acid breaks the circle by toning down the inflammatory response.

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Antitumor; PCF:49;
  • Cancer-Preventive; 525;

Diabetes treatment


According to Dr Duke’s analysis, salicylic acid also has anti-diabetic activity as follows:

Dr Duke’s list of Biological Activities of SALICYLIC-ACID

  • Hypoglycemic; EMP6:158;

  • Aldose-Reductase-Inhibitor;
    724.6 uM; PR7:252; - aldose reductase, is an enzyme that is normally present in many other parts of the body, and catalyzes one of the steps in the sorbitol(polyol) pathway that is responsible for fructose formation from glucose. Aldose reductase activity increases as the glucose concentration rises in diabetes in those tissues that are not insulin sensitive, which include the lenses, peripheral nerves and glomerulus. Sorbitol does not diffuse through cell membranes easily and therefore accumulates, causing osmotic damage which leads to retinopathy and neuropathy.

There are other views

The antidiabetic effects of salicylic acid are likely mediated by AMPK [adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase ] activation primarily through allosteric conformational change that increases levels of phosphorylation. Salicylic acid also uncouples oxidative phosphorylation, which leads to increased ADP:ATP and AMP:ATP ratios in the cell. As a consequence, salicylic acid may alter AMPK activity and subsequently exert its anti-diabetic properties through altered energy status of the cell. Even in AMPK knock-out mice, however, there is an anti-diabetic effect, demonstrating that there is at least one additional, yet-unidentified action of the compound.

Diabetes is caused by damage to the pancreas.  It is usually pathogens that do the damage and it may be that the protective effect is simply a knock-on benefit of the activity on the intestine – that by protecting the intestine, fewer pathogens get through to attack the pancreas

References and further reading


I am afraid I am unable to credit the photographer of these images as they were sent me by a friend

Dr Duke's references

  • PR7:252: Toyomizu, M., Sugiyama, S., Jin, R. L., Nakatsu, T. 1993. Alpha-Glucosidase and Aldose Reductase Inhibitors: Constituents of Cashew, Anacardium occidentale, Nut Shell Liquids. Phytotherapy Research, 7(3): 252-254.
  • PJB1\(2\):285 MAD:   SCI237:1601:  PJB1\(2\):285:  PJB1\(2\):285:  PCF:49:  FFJ11:257:   Jim Duke's personal files
  • MAD: Madaus, G. 1976. Lehrbuch der Biologischen Hilfmittel. Vol,. 1-3. 2862 pp. (+ 144 p. index). Georg Olms Verlag, Hildescheim. Reprint of 1938 Madaus
  • MAR: Martindale's 28th
  • ALH: A.L.L. Hunting. Encyclopedia of Shampoo Ingredients. Micelle Press, Cranford NJ. 467 pp.
  • M29: Martindale's 29th
  • PHZ46:156: Pharmazie, 46: 156, 1991
  • KCH: Huang, K. C. 1993. The Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL 388 pp.
  • JBH: Jeffery B. Harborne and H. Baxter, eds. 1983. Phytochemical Dictionary. A Handbook of Bioactive Compounds from Plants. Taylor & Frost, London. 791 pp.
  • M11: Merck 11th Edition
  • COX2000: Newmark, T. M. and Schulick, P. 2000. Herbal Cox-2 Inhibition - Nature's Challenge to Arthritis, Cancer & Alzheimer's Disease. Hohm Press, Prescott AZ.
  • 525: Stitt, P. A. Why George Should Eat Broccoli. Dougherty Co, Milwaukee, WI, 1990, 399 pp
  • EMP6:158: Economic & Medicinal Plant Research, 6: 158.
  • EB48:111: Tunon, H., Thorsell, W., and Bohlin, L. 1993. Mosquito Repelling Activity of Compounds Occurring in Achillea millefolium L. (Asteraceae). Economic Botany 48(2): 111-120, 1994.

Related observations